Tattoo Art 101: To Cover Up Or Not To Cover Up
While Vyvyn’s 2006 article deals mainly with the task of covering old, fading or inappropriate tattoos with new ones, since we recently completed a Cover-up Tattoo Contest and are on the subject already, we thought it might be a good idea and add some photos of a different kind of covering-up, namely, covering-up wounds and surgical scars.
People new to tattoos often forget the long-term considerations of wearing body art. Some get a tattoo to remember something special or to mark a time in their lives. Others think in terms of a lifetime commitment, carefully planning how they want their bodies to look. Being tattooed can be a major statement of personal philosophy, something that surpasses time, a universal language, a source of inspiration, emotion, power and affirmation. Unfortunately, not all our early decisions work with the more measured choices we make as we gain experience. Because of this, many people come to me to talk about tattooing over old art. In that spirit, perhaps it’s time to talk about cover-ups.
In the past, most people wanted cover-ups to erase the names of ex-husbands, ex-girlfriends or old and forgotten loves. Recently, names are no longer the foremost candidates for cover-ups. The majority are customers, for example, with one small tattoo on each shoulder blade who want a complete a backpiece or shoulderpiece. They feel they have outgrown the old imagery and now want something that is going to be more meaningful or aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Hopefully, customers desiring a cover-up know that reworking an old tattoo demands a high level of expertise, as well as patience in selecting a proper design. Many facing the cover-up dilemma for the first time don’t understand that not all tattoo designs are great cover-up material. A patient artist from a good shop is required to explain that subject matter and style choices are usually dictated by the artwork you are trying to cover up. For example, if a person has a rather dense dark tattoo, a Celtic design or portrait will probably not cover it up well, unless those styles are large and dark themselves. It will end up with one tattoo layered over another, making it look even messier. The best thing to do is find an artist, speak with them about it, and then let them take their time doing some sketches to see where exactly the shading and light will fall in the finished product.
There is no one kind of subject matter that makes for a good or bad cover-up. Generally, open designs with lots of negative space don’t make good material for cover-ups. The point is to make the old tattoo invisible under the new, not allow it to show through. Usually, the key is taking enough space around the existing tattoo and figuring out how the dark shading will be evenly dispersed. Then you must consider the contrasting part of the tattoo. That’s very important, because you don’t want the whole thing to turn into a dark mass. You want the existing areas that aren’t shaded with dark to be shaded in such a way that there’s room left for various light colors. Or, if it is black and white, then the areas of lightness must balance the dark areas, so it will stand out.
When someone comes in for a consultation for a cover-up, we sit down and I do a small sketch of a body, indicating the placement of the existing tattoo, and then we discuss the possibilities. Sometimes, what a customer wants will not work, so I try to figure out solutions, without compromising the art. Then I do a rough sketch on the small body form to see how the shapes will work. Then I take a life-size tracing with tracing paper (kind of like making a pattern in dressmaking) of the area. Later, I sit down and start to put the design ideas on the paper. It’s all a process. Sometimes I don’t get it the exact way I want it the first time around, so I keep working until it looks right. After I get a piece that pleases me, I call the client and let them know I have a sketch for them to look at.
One thing a customer needs to know about cover-ups is they take more time then putting on a new tattoo. The process can sometimes take three or more sessions. One of my recent clients came to me and wanted a dragon on his back. We sat down and talked about it. We agreed that I should cover over the phoenix on his shoulder (as you can see in the before picture). I was able to layer in the ink and still give the design some light areas, so it wasn’t all just dark shading and color. This piece is still in process of being worked on, but you can see what can be done in the first few sessions.
The best advice I can give about searching for the right cover-up is to research artists. Look at their portfolios, take your time and start collecting images you like. Even if they won’t work for a cover-up, it will at least show the artist what you prefer. Gather up what you can and then book a consultation with the tattooist of your choice. If you’re not sure how to find images, I would suggest to go to any good book store and look through different kinds of art books and art cards or try Google on the Internet. Remember, in this world of fast food, fast everything and instant gratification, getting a good tattoo is a slow, careful process that is well worth the time and patience.
If you have any questions, please contact me.
—Your sister in tattooing,
Vyvyn Lazonga (firstname.lastname@example.org)